Microphone Locker: The AT 4040

 A pair of At 4050's used as overheads on our studio drums.

A pair of At 4040’s used as overheads on our studio drum kit

The fact we have a pair of matched AT 4040 microphones is yet another reason to choose Play It Again Demos (our over-the-internet demo recording service) or Nashville Trax to do your recording work. They let us give you predictably fantastic drum sounds, and they add one more color to the producer’s palette.

For large diaphragm condensors they’re “cheapies” listing at around $500 each and retailing about $300. But price is irrelevant to application. In other words, a $150 dynamic microphone will sometimes outperform a $3,000 condenser microphone, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

The AT is listed as having relatively flat response across the audible spectrum from 20 HZ to about 20K. In actual use I’ve discovered it is a little heavy on the bass end, not muddy, just loud, and crystal clear in the mids. The high end is clear too but if that’s what the application requires, you have to roll off the bass to reveal it.

We use a pair of AT’s for drum overheads so normally I keep the 80 Hz, 12 dB/octave switch set to minimize the bass response. Once EQ’d properly, they shine as overheads.

I feel blessed here at the studio in two ways. We have a good selection of mics to choose from that cover every recording situation, plus we have a drum kit set up permanently.

So many studios let the drummer furnish the drums and that means setting up and tearing down the whole kit for most sessions. Then the mics have to be set up and re-calibrated each time. It can be done but I have zero time for redundant, skull numbing mindlessness and there’s no way you’ll achieve the consistently great sound inherent in a permanent drum setup unless you have one. So we do.

Comments from seasoned studio musicians on the drum sounds are typically, “I wish my kick drum sounded like THAT!” and, “The drums sound PERFECT, don’t change a thing!”

The drums alone have 9 microphones: bass drum, snare, hi-hat, 3 tom mics, the two AT 4040’s, and a room mic. I can fire up the gear, the drummer can simply sit down and start pounding away and with minimal tweaking, we’re ready to record.

All that being said I must admit that I sometimes pull an AT off the drum kit, usually out of desperation because a far more expensive mic isn’t getting it done. And usually the AT excels. I’ve used them on background vocals, fiddle, even horns.

On one session I used an AT for lead vocal instead of a $1,000 mic that pre-session I figured would almost certainly work because it had for that same singer many times prior. Both the singer and I agreed: The AT simply sounded better for his voice that day- B. E. Watson

The Nashville Trax Isolation Booth

In The Iso Booth

In The Iso Booth

The Nashville Trax isolation booth is working out great!

This is where guitar, fiddle, mandolin and other acoustic instruments are tracked, usually as overdubs.

The booth is slightly larger than most. It was designed to accommodate more than one performer if need be.

There’s one window that permits the performer to make eye contact with the engineer and/or producer in the adjacent control room.

Be careful not to touch the far right button! It ignites fuel tubes #1 and #2 and the countdown for your blast off to Neptune will begin. 10-9-8-7…Just kidding, it actually turns up the 2 mix in your headphone cans.

The booth is double drywalled, has no parallel walls (to prevent sound from bouncing back and forth) and it’s padded with just enough Auralex to remove the larger room ambience, slap and flutter without creating that “absolutely dead on arrival” sound you get from some studio’s iso booths. Lovin’ it! – b.e. watson

Microphone Locker: The Mojave MA-200

One excellent microphone for vocals as well as other applications.

One excellent microphone for vocals as well as other applications.

This Mojave large diaphragm condenser microphone is one of my favorite go-to mics for lead or background vocals. I’ve also been very pleased when using it on electric guitar amps/cabinets. In vocal A-B-C comparison tests it has won more than any other in the locker.

The MA-200 was created by David Royer of Royer Labs fame and the Mojave is advertised as “sounds like classic German microphones.”

I guess they can’t come right out and say it but I can tell you which “German microphone” it was modeled to sound like: The Neumann U87, no doubt about it. It’s likely the Neumann U87 is the most used mic in Nashville.

By the way, here’s a little tip that just might save one of your song projects someday. Having the right tool, which will often be the Mojave, is great but the singer IS the song! Before investing in tracking be sure you have the right one for the song. For those times you get stuck, bookmark this link. These are some of the singers I use and each is fabulous at what they do and willing to be the vocalist on your project.

Both U87 and the Mojave are advertised as having a flat frequency response from 20 to 20khz, other specs are similar, and, unless examined at extremely close range, they look nearly indistinguishable, even the baskets the microphones sit in are dead ringers.

Some engineers will argue it’s the Neumann U67 clone, and yes, they’re still popular on the used microphone market, but even Neumann no longer makes the U67 only the U87.

Before we go further you should know the following information was obtained at great personal risk and required donning a trench coat, wearing a Fedora, driving hundreds of miles, sleeping in my car overnight, and hiding a camera up my left nostril. It actually felt pretty good up there and cut my Kleenex needs in half, so I haven’t taken it out other than to retrieve the Mojave graph pic below:

Additional proof it’s a U87 clone is contained in the actual frequency response curve, nearly identical to the U87 throughout, except for a slight bump centered around 4k:

MA-200 Frequency Response

MA-200 Frequency Response

I suspect the bump is there intentionally, so no preamp EQ tweaking in that range is necessary. I often don’t need to do any EQ in the preamp stage to the MA-200, it sounds fantastic as-is.

The U67 does have a slight bump. but it’s centered around 1K, not 4. No longer manufactured, wrong bump placement. Nope, doesn’t add up.

The good thing is the MA-200 retails at just over $1,000 complete with power pack, case and basket. The U87 is a budget busting $3,500. It would be interesting to do a blind listening test featuring a U87 and an MA-200 through various pre-amps. How many engineers would stake their reputation on being able to tell the difference? I’ve made that offer around town a few times, and so far, no takers. Hmmmm…

So if the MA-200 so great, why not use it for everything or at least for every singer?

Because there is no such thing as the perfect microphone. Every voice has unique characteristics. Recordings of anything, especially vocals, sound the most natural when the least EQ tweaking is necessary at mix. So you want a microphone up that brings out the best characteristics of that particular vocalist. If, for example, the singer’s wheelhouse is in the high registers and they have an edgy, desirable peak in the upper mids, I want a microphone that brings those features to the forefront.

If you go through tracking tossing up any microphone simply because it records all frequencies, adopting an “I’ll fix it in the mix” approach, you’re going to have a whole lot of unnecessary knob turning happening during mixdown, That is extremely undesirable on vocals, and it can result in a weird, unnatural sounding mix.

The better approach is to choose microphones that reproduce the sounds you want to hear or as close to a particular sound as possible, so very little EQ tweaking is necessary.

When recording a new vocalist, I’ll usually listen to them sing in the control room either a capella, or with just an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. Then I’ll situate them in the vocal booth and start tossing up various microphones while I test record them singing through the Avalon and on into the Pro Tools session file track. If I test 4 microphones I’ll edit the track down to about 15 seconds of each side-by-side in an A, B, C, D style comparison so I can hear how each microphone sounds with their voice, then go with the winner.

At least half the time, that’s the MA-200- b.e.

Studio Gear: Fender Precision Bass Through A Hartke Amplifier

Bill Watson plays the Fender Precision Bass through a Hartke amp 7-15-13

Bill Watson plays the Fender Precision Bass through a Hartke amp 7-15-13

If you like the Fender P bass sound, we have one available at all times in the Nashville Trax studio for your project. You are more than welcome to play it yourself, or a session quality player can be provided.

The actual percentage of hit song recordings that have been played using a Precision is unknown but surely no other bass has been used on as many.
It’s not as much the “go to” bass as it once was, but it’s still popular.

Most of the Motown hit’s bass lines, some of the greatest, grooviest and most memorable bass lines in history, were played on The Funk Machine, a 1962 Fender Precision Bass (Google Bob Babbitt or James Jamerson sometime) and certain players from every era and every style of music swore by one. Today, you can find a player in about any genre who uses a Precision to record.

Typically when this bass is used on a client recording we run the Precision direct into our Avalon U5 or the Avalon 737 setup for bass guitar and on into the board. Sometimes to provide options at mix we’ll also run a microphone on one of the two Hartke speaker cabinets, or run a second line through a processor.

Country, rock, funk out slappy poppy stuff, it’s all good on a P-bass.-b.e.

Why Nashville Trax?

Want great drum sounds? Come record where the great drum sounds are!

Want great drum sounds? Come record where the great drum sounds are!

Nashville session guitarist, Tom Wild, mentioned how well the CD he produced in a couple previous tracking sessions at Nashville Trax (for one of his own clients) with yours truly engineering, turned out. (We cut the rhythm tracks and overdubs then exported them to Tom’s hard drive for him to mix.) He said his client was thrilled, the entire CD came out fantastic and promised to forward a copy.

The music was rock and Tom reported, “The drum sounds were just awesome and mixed great, don’t ever touch a thing.” Most Nashville studios either don’t own a drum kit or have a tiny, constrictive drum room with zero ambiance guaranteeing “dead on arrival” sounds that require a lot of signal processing to make them right, if they ever can be considering the typical “studio drum kit” is probably assembled from a bunch of used junk pro drummers didn’t want anymore. The huge drum room here with a permanently setup Gretch kit and microphones chosen specifically for each drum guarantee consistent sounds, The only adjustments I have to make most of the time are volume to account for drummers with a lighter touch and minor EQ tweaking to a specific type of music- Bill Watson

Studio Gear : The Roland R-8 Drum Machine

The Roland R-8's best feature is 8 separate outputs.

The Roland R-8’s best feature is 8 separate outputs.

Although dated, the Roland R-8 is a great drum machine. The sounds are accurate, crisp and clear actual recordings of live drum hits. It can be programmed in real time by tapping the pads while listening to a click track generated in the machine or it can programmed step-by-step.

We have a real drum kit in the studio as well as various software and keyboard generated options for drum sounds so this relic rarely gets used, live drums are vastly better than programmed, but there are situations where it comes in handy. Often if an idea comes up and no drummer is handy, I’ll lay a drum track to catch a groove while tracking other instruments then, if the tracks are tight enough, replace it with live drums at the next session.

If you ever need to do that, or want to start out with a session quality drum track just click here to access our studio drummer and samples of his work. He’ll deliver better tracks than any machine will, guaranteed.

Other situations arise where a client specifically requests a drum machine, where a client can’t afford to pay a drummer or where the music demands one. One demo we did started with a drum machine intro then morphed into live drums as verse 1 began, just for something cool and different to add to the project.

By far the best feature, and the reason I prefer the R-8 over newer models, is the 8 separate outputs numbered 1-6 and stereo left/stereo right. Once you have a good pattern going or a complete song ready in mono mode, you can then assign the drums to the outputs. That means kick drum can go to output #1 and end up on its own track in Pro Tools. Ditto up to 7 more drums or cymbals.

Newer machines like the Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-880 have only stereo outputs so you either have to do stereo and be stuck with the drum mix as-is, drive it via midi and do several passes to get individual tracks on each drum, or record everything on a stereo track and slice/dice the parts to other tracks, tedious!- b.e.

Avalon VT 737SP Review

The Avalon VT 737SP is one of those expensive toys you benefit from when you hire either Play It Again for your songwriter demos or Nashville Trax to produce your project. All vocals we track go through it.

We’ve had an Avalon for years now and it’s a great microphone preamp/compressor/equalizer. At $2,400 list it’s beyond the budget of most home recording enthusiasts, and even some smaller studios, because it alone simply won’t make that big a difference. But in conjunction with the right microphone, possibly a channel strip and most definitely run by someone with talent it can. It will make an instrument punchier, make vocals clearer, and make a track sit better in the mix. Basically anything you run through it is improved slightly.

If you’re thinking of purchasing an Avalon it will certainly improve your sound some. An even bigger step up is to use session quality musicians and Nashville session singers.

You can access all of our services that interface with your pro or home studio. including mixing and mastering, by clicking on “more” in the upper right corner of the site.

I love the Avalon on a lead vocal because, by tweaking the EQ section, you can find the “edge” in a singer’s voice and bring it out just enough for the song. With the right microphone and settings acoustic guitar tracks are awesome. In fact, one Nashville session player who has worked at every studio in town remarked to me last year that no other studio delivers the rich, clear acoustic guitar tracks we do, and some of that praise belongs to the Avalon. But it’s great on snare and bass drum too.

In short there’s no way I could produce music at the level achieved the last many years without the Avalon 737SP being part of the front end chain. In fact, I’d feel naked without it, just trust me on this: you DO NOT want me doing your session naked, especially if you;re present!

A home recording enthusiast can twist and turn the knobs on a DBX 463 all day long and will never get half of what the 737 delivers with ease.

Click the pic of the Avalon and microphone above for a great deal on the Avalon plus an AT 4040 condensor microphone. We have one of those too, it’s an excellent mic we use almost daily on drum overheads.

The Avalon 737SP: One more reason to hire a real studio for your songwriter demos or producing needs- Bill Watson

The studio's Avalon VT 737SP

The studio’s Avalon VT 737SP